Relationship between Vilademir Propp’s Functions and Hitchcock’s Films
23rd, December 2012
Vladimir Propp was a Russian scholar in literature and critic, born in 1895. In his book, Morphology of Folk Tale, which was published in 1928, Vladimir analysed 100 folk tales in his country, Russia, during the period of 1920s. He did this because of the experience and knowledge he had gained during his studies. He realized that the characters in folk tales can be categorized using a common standard of classification. From this categorization, the characters’ roles in the narratives are shown, as well as the structure and functions of the narrative. He therefore theorized the plots of narratives, identified the similarities in their themes, and simplified all the texts into similar elements. He was responsible for multiple changes that have been experienced in literature, and especially in narratives (Hale 2009). Today, Vladimir’s ideas are still used in narrative plots, and most importantly, his ideas are more applicable to narratives. However, these today have been applied in the film and cinema industry. Different film theorists have equally studied on narrative structure and this is in conformity with Propp’s work (Bellour & Penley 2000). In this essay, I will address Propp’s findings in Morphology of Folk Tale, their contribution to the narrative theory of film, and how they relate with Hitchcock’s films “North by Northwest” and “Spellbound.”
Propp in his Morphology of Folk Tale comes up a total of eight roles of the characters, and thirty-one functions of narratives, also called narratemes, which mainly defined the structure of the narratives. He was convicted that these narrative functions were existent in the classical fairy tale narrative (Hale 2009). The eight character roles, which Propp identified in his book, include The Helper, The Villain, The Donor, The False Hero, The Dispatcher, The Hero, The Princess, and her father. The functions of narratives by Propp exhibit more flexibility than the character roles. Propp made a categorization of these narrative functions to include six major groups, which are in coherence with the flow of the narrative. These include Struggle, Complication, Preparation, Recognition, Transference, and Return. The folk tales of different regions of the world are interconnected in one way or another, bearing a great deal of similarities in their themes. Hence, the Morphology of the folk tale by Propp is not only applicable in Russian folk tales, but also to the folk tales of other different world regions (Propp 1928).
Propp’s work has been credited for giving a new meaning to narratives and folk tales. However, he has been criticized for his insensitivity to address the more important components of the stories such as mood and the deeper contexts of the stories. Nonetheless, his work remains influential in both contemporary and past stories. In the ancient periods, Propp had a considerable influence on Claude Levi-Strauss as well as Barthes Roland. Therefore, Propp and his analysis has become a classic of folklore and structuralist analysis (Propp 1928).
Hitchcock films, “North by Northwest” and “Spellbound” can be analysed using Propp’s morphology of folk tales. This is because most of Hitchcock’s films exhibit similar themes in their plot, as well as the role of the characters, which are interconnected. These similar themes and interconnectedness of character roles make Hitchcock’s films qualify Propp’s morphological analysis. North by Northwest is a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This film was released in 1959, is suspenseful and full of humour. . It involves the characters of Rodger Thornbill, who works as an advertising executive and is mistakenly suspected as an American spy. He therefore has to outmaneuver both the police and criminals in order to escape arrest and possible detention. Hitchcock employs techniques of suspense, including editing techniques, as well as techniques of discontinuity to develop his plot. In this movie, Hitchcock maintains the theme throughout the flow of the movie. The main theme is the false identities or double identities, which is manifest in the different events that unfold in the movie as well as the character traits of the characters in this movie (Williams 2001).
Hitchcock shows similarities in the behaviour and attitudes of the characters. For instance, nearly all characters are involved in negative practices such as stealing and lying. In addition, all the characters have a double identity, one, which is of course false. At the end of the movie, the audience realizes that none of the characters maintains their identity throughout the movie. The main character, Roger Thornhill is the one responsible for the propagation of this theme. For instance, at the start, he is shown as businessperson in Madison Avenue, leading a simple life. He then is shown as an angry man, who is mistaken for Kaplan George, a criminal. Later, he turns into a fugitive from justice, as he is seen escaping from the police tactfully, as though he was experienced. Finally, he disguises himself as Kaplan George, in order to save Eve Kendell, the woman he fell in love with (Williams 2001).
On the other hand, Eve Kendell plays two varying roles. She plays different roles to both Vandamm and Kaplan. She acts as a helpful person to Thornhill, while in reality; she ‘works” for Vandamm. She therefore, plays a double role to these two men. While Vandamm thinks that Eve likes him and is helping in the search to capture Thornbill, Eve on the contrast is liaising with the government agents in a bid to arrest Vandamm (Williams 2001).
Most of Hitchcock’s films have the theme of false and double roles in characters. The characters also play quite similar roles. This is also evident in the film Shadow of a Doubt, as well as Spellbound. In Spellbound, Hitchcock presents a thriller, which is psychologically based and mysterious at the same time. The film centres on a new director of a mental centre, Doctor Anthony Edwardes, an impostor, who is discovered to have concealed his identity since the very beginning. Dr. Petersen falls in love with the new director, despite her knowing that the director is an impostor. Previously, Dr. Petersen was known to be a stern and principled woman and a dedicated psychoanalyst in the asylum. However, after falling in love with the new director, Dr. Petersen changes to become a desperately attached, unreasonable, and reckless. This is the total opposite of the original Dr. Petersen. This transformation is as well shocking to the rest of her colleagues. She even goes back on her principles and values in order to protect the new director, during the police manhunt for him. By doing this, Dr. Petersen jeopardizes her career, as well as her life, turning her into an irresponsible person, despite her former high level of responsibility. The characters in this film, like those in “North by Northwest,” exhibit double personalities. However, Hitchcock strongly relates the double personalities of characters in Spellbound to have been caused by psychological disorders such as amnesia, among others (Deutelbaum & Poague 2009).
Since these two films show some relationship in their themes as well as the roles of characters, then they make their comparison and analysis using Propp’s morphology of folk tale possible. In both films, the main characters, which are Dr. Anthony Edwardes in Spellbound and Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, carry the main theme of the movies through the roles they play in the movies. The other characters in the movies also largely contribute to the theme of the movies through the different roles they play. The functions of the movies are also quite related as they both draw from the psychological aspect.
Bellour, R. & Penley, C 2000, The Analysis of Film, Indiana University Press, New York.
Deutelbaum, M. & Poague L 2009, A Hitchcock Reader, John Wiley & Sons, London.
Hale, D 2009, The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000, John Wiley & Sons,
Propp, V 1928 Morphology of the Folk Tale, Trans. 1968, The American Folklore Society
and Indiana University, Retrieved 22 December 2012 <http://homes.di.unimi.it/~alberti/Mm10/doc/propp.pdf>
Williams, D 2001, North by northwest: director, Alfred Hitchcock, Longman, London.
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